A Weekend Workcamp

David Richie (left) at an AFSC-sponsored workcamp in Finland in 1947.


The most unforgettable speaker ever to come to Philadelphia’s William Penn Charter School during my high school student years was a man named David Richie. Penn Charter is a Quaker school, and Richie was a Quaker activist who organized groups of volunteers to work on housing conditions in parts of inner city Philadelphia. He ran weeklong and weekend workcamps under the auspices of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. The day he spoke he told inspiring stories about students at the camps who worked alongside tenants to rehabilitate their decaying homes. He struck me as a humble yet strong man who embodied a cardinal Quaker principle—service to others in need.

World War II was raging during those years. Why was David not in the army? Possibly he failed the physical or was too old for the draft. More likely, however, he was true to his Quaker convictions against war and had become a conscientious objector. He must have realized that his war on poverty housing could barely make a dent in the widespread substandard conditions. Nevertheless, he invited students at Penn Charter (and probably every other high school where he could get an invitation) to come and work with him. “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” was a motto for his life’s work.

David’s message gripped me. At 16 years of age, during my senior year (1945-46), I volunteered for a weekend workcamp. I know this greatly dismayed my parents, who were fearful for my safety, but remarkably they didn’t try to stand in my way.

An AFSC workcamp participant at a site in Brasstown, N.C., in 1946 (learn more about this project). Both photos courtesey of American Friends Service Committee.
An AFSC workcamp participant at a site in Brasstown, N.C., in 1946 (learn more about this project). Both photos courtesey of American Friends Service Committee.

On the appointed day, a Friday, I packed a small bag and traveled by trolley car, arriving around 5:30 pm at an old church that was to be our home for the weekend. It was in a neighborhood of run-down row houses in North Philadelphia. Fifteen or so students from various high schools made up the other volunteers. I knew none of them. David’s was the only familiar face there.

We settled into the church basement, had some dinner and, under David’s leadership, played several games to break the ice and get acquainted. Then David gave a more serious explanation of Saturday’s work schedule. We would be working in small crews of two or three. In the morning, we would walk to our pre-assigned work locations carrying our supplies (tools, plaster, paint, paintbrushes, etc.) with us. We were to work only if someone living in the apartment worked with us. After some spirited discussions about Quaker values, especially pacifism, we set up our cots for the night and were off to bed by 10:00 or 10:30 pm.

On Saturday morning, the girl with whom I was assigned to work and I set off with a mixture of excited anticipation and nervous butterflies in our stomachs. We carried our supplies to an address a few blocks away. The family living in the second floor apartment of the two-story row house greeted us. They were friendly and joined us in the task of scraping, plastering, and re-painting one room of their apartment. It was a job small enough to be accomplished in a single day. Our apprehensions quickly faded and the day passed uneventfully. We received warm thanks at the end of the afternoon.

We were all tired as we gathered again in the church basement for dinner, followed by a few more games and then a time for each crew to report on the day’s experiences.

Our physical work was complete, but the workcamp was far from over. The next day we were awakened at the crack of dawn for two Sunday events that David had arranged for us. We were taken to an early morning police court. There we sat and observed what happens to those arrested in the precinct and held in jail over a Saturday night for alleged fights, drunkenness, robbery, or even homicide. A magistrate listened to the police reports, heard the defendants’ pleas, and then determined whether the evidence warranted holding a defendant in jail pending trial or releasing them on bail. It was an eye-opening experience for all of us.

We returned to our home base church for breakfast and an opportunity to discuss the cases we had seen in the police court.

The final event of the weekend was a church service unlike any I had been exposed to before: Sunday worship at a large Baptist church. It was packed full and we were the only white faces in the entire congregation. My initial feelings of unease quickly passed. The service was marked by exuberant singing, loud amens, and shouts of encouragement during the preaching. It lasted about half again as long as the services to which I was accustomed at the all-white Oak Lane Presbyterian Church only a few miles away. All of this was new to me and probably most of the other weekend workcampers. I felt happy and fortunate to have been there.

Returning home, I knew I wanted more experiences like this. The workcamp had taken me beyond my comfort zone, and I had felt the value of serving. That weekend and subsequent workcamp experiences set a tone that was to influence the rest of my life—in my career in medicine, which included visits to several African countries to work and teach, and in a variety of volunteer endeavors during retirement, such as Habitat for Humanity and Bikes for the World.

George Kurz

George Kurz is a retired ophthalmologist who practiced in New Jersey and was a clinical professor of ophthalmology at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. He also taught in Africa, China, Ecuador, and the Philippines. He and his wife Elisabeth live at Pennswood Village, a Quaker retirement community in Pennsylvania.

7 thoughts on “A Weekend Workcamp

  1. This article reminded me of the workcamps I attended with David Ritchie in the 1950’s while I was in high school. They were an important rite of passage for me as well, and also influenced my later decisions to work in Tennessee during the summer of 1963 on the civil rights movement, and to volunteer for the AFSC VISA program from 1964-1966, first in Tanzania and then in Guatemala. Subsequently my work as a teacher has led me to teach in Spanish Harlem and south Seattle neighborhoods, communities that share similar problems to those faced by residents in north Philadelphia we met through David Ritchie’s workcamps.

  2. At William Penn House, we have picked up the mantel of Quaker Workcamps, with a deep commitment that, as George wrote, these experiences take people beyond their comfort zone and learn the value of service. These days, too often people do try to provide comfort to the discomforted, but without personally being discomforted. “Voluntourism” is the term that captures this phenomenon. Yes, people may be sleeping in uncomfortable places and eating odd foods, but they are not morally or ethically discomforted; in fact they often take too much comfort in their “good works”. For us, conversations around these dilemmas are a vital component of the Quaker Workcamp experience. This summer, we have 5 young adults working with us in DC who we met through Workcamps in New Orleans and South Dakota. They are from DC but never been to the troubled places of DC. Their experiences with the other Workcamps opened up the opportunity for us to engage them in their own backyard – really embracing the testimony of Community. Two of these people are also descendants of David Richie so we feel a special commitment to carrying on his legacy.

    We have also been developing resources to help people – i.e. Quaker Meetings and Friends Schools – consider ways Quaker Workcamps can help with outreach and spiritual formation while addressing the challenge of sustainable justice and peace (see http://www.williampennhouse.org/Workcamp.Resources).

    We welcome the input and wisdom of people who have participated in Quaker Workcamps over the years. We would also like to collect more stories such as this. If you have more stories please contact me (brad@williampennhouse.org).

    Thanks, George, for this beautiful piece.

    Brad Ogilvie
    Program Coordinator
    William Penn House

  3. Hello,

    I have just gone through my father’s journals from 1950’s and he has made notes from lectures given by David Richie on voluntary work. My father studied in Viittakivi International center in 1955 and was a leader for a work camp in Lapland during the summer 1955. The Quaker work camps are still remembered with gratitude in Lapland and there is a research project “Feeniks – on rebuilding of Lapland” going on in the University of Lapland. We are having an international conference next week and there will be two presentations including Quaker aspect. Anniina Koivurova is going to speak about Naomi Jackson and her work as art educator during the work camps and I will speak about voluntary work as peace building based on the material from my father’s archives.

    Jaana Erkkilä

  4. The article by George Kurz revives memories of my own interaction with Dave and his daughter, Marty decades ago in a Moravian settlement, Genadendal, South Africa. 1959, during the heyday of apartheid, the Moravian Church had undertaken to develop an ecumenical, multi-racial youth & lay training centre with annual workcamps serving as the platform to create the Langgezocht Youth Centre. It was an enormous privilege for me as a searching 18 year-old to interact with Dave as one of the camp-leaders in 1968. This was to be the last multi-racial workcamp and also the last time that Dave visited the country. The apartheid government forbade (banned) any further multi-racial camps and Dave was no longer granted a visa to enter the country. Despite this, Dave and I continued a correspondence – his annual round-robins – for decades. He visited me and my family in Germany (1987) where we were living in political exile and I had to the great honour of visiting him at this home in Philadelphia in 1994(?). We have lost track since I returned to SA in 1996. I am in the process of contributing to a research project on the role of these workcamps during our struggle in South Africa and was doing a search on Dave Richie when I happened on this beautiful article. Thank you, George Kurz. Yours, Robert Kriger

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